8 September 1997. It’s a Monday, the first Monday of term at the start of my second year as a qualified teacher. I have all the confidence and experience that comes from having spent one year in the job. I have my own classroom and I know how things work. I come home from school and sort out my planning for the rest of the week. I am twenty-four years old. I am meticulous and organised and in control. And just after half-past six, the phone rings. It’s my brother. He asks me if my partner, Matthew, is home from work yet. I want to know why. He says that he doesn’t want me to be on my own, that the reason why he’s calling – at an unexpected time, just after half-past six in the evening, on a Monday – is because our mum died, about two hours ago, completely unexpectedly.
She had been taken ill, apparently, at about midday. She’d managed to phone her friend down the road, but hadn’t been able to talk. Her friend had hurried round, but there had been no answer when she’d knocked on the door, and so she’d rung for an ambulance. My mum had had an aortic aneurysm, massive and unsurvivable. She’d been rushed to hospital for emergency surgery, but she’d died, seven weeks before her sixtieth birthday, at about four-thirty in the afternoon.
8 September 2022 was an odd day. Twenty-five years ago. Anniversaries are always hard, but this one was particularly tough, an official marker of half a lifetime without any parents. And so when I looked at the news on my phone at lunchtime, thinking of what would have been happening twenty-five years ago, and saw the announcement that the Queen’s doctors were concerned for her health, I kind of knew how it would all play out. And when the announcement came, at just after half-past six in the evening, I wasn’t surprised.
My mum was lovely. Kind and warm and quietly dignified. My dad had died just over three years earlier, and she was just getting things back together again. The last time I saw her was on the day Princess Diana died. We’d sat in the garden in the late summer sun, everything feeling a bit weird. I’d been planning to go up at half-term. Everything was knocked out of place, out of shape. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.
A lot has been written about the way that private griefs are brought back into focus by the death of public figures, how collective mourning allows personal sorrow to resurface. There’s a sense of catharsis, a purging, a healing. There’s space to think.
My mum was a knitter, and one of the things I have from her is a cardigan that she made for me in my second year at university. I wear it when I’m cold, and sometimes the Dude wraps himself in it if he’s feeling sad, a hug from the grandmother he never knew, who never got to meet him.
I am thinking, tonight, of everyone who lost someone on 8 September. I am wishing them whatever strength they need to get themselves through what they’re going through at the moment. And I am hoping they have a cardigan to wrap themselves in.